By Paul John Scott, DETAILS
I'm in a Panera Bread outlet. The company is on Fortune's 2010 list of the 100 Fastest Growing Companies and earned more than $1.3 billion in 2009, mainly from selling flour and sugar by the railcar. Last year, Zagat named it the most popular large chain in the United States and ranked it second in the Healthy Options category. The company responded by touting its "wholesome" food. Sure, Panera sells a few salads. But why do the scones, pastries, baguettes, and bear claws get all the good lighting? Why are the grab-and-go packs of cookies and brownies next to the register? What need is fulfilled by serving soup bowls made of bread, with a mound of bread for dipping, and then offering more bread on the side? How come it's noon and the couple behind me are eating bagels while the guy to my right is sawing into a cinnamon roll with a fork and a knife like it's a steak?
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The answer is that fast-burning carbohydrates-just like cocaine-give you a rush. As with blow, this rush can lead to cravings in your brain and intrusive thoughts when you go too long without a fix. But unlike cocaine, this stuff does more than rewire your neurological system. It will short-circuit your body. Your metabolism normally stockpiles energy so you can use it as fuel later. A diet flush with carbohydrates will reprogram your metabolism, locking your food away as unburnable fat. When you get hungry again you won't crave anything but more of the same food that started you down the path to dependency. Think of this stuff as more than a drug-it's like a metabolic parasite, taking over your body and feeding itself.
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The Diets That Work
You wouldn't know it from reading the latest dietary headlines, but all of the popular diets-from Atkins to Dean Ornish (Bill Clinton's weight-loss plan) to the diet-of-the-moment, Paleo-are successful because the most important change they advise is the same: stop eating refined carbohydrates. This only reminds us of what had been the conventional wisdom in medicine for hundreds of years before the USDA stepped in: that sugar, flour, potatoes, and rice are what make a person fat, not meat and milk.
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Forty years into the low-fat, high-carbohydrate way of eating-we can thank it for "diabesity," shorthand for the societal prevalence of type II diabetes paired with obesity-it seems clearer than ever that our problem lies not simply in carbohydrates, but in their fundamental addictiveness. They sidestep our defenses against overeating, activate brain pathways for pleasure, and make us simultaneously fat and malnourished. They keep us coming back for more, even as they induce physical decline and social rejection. They achieve this more effectively than the controlled substances that can get a guy thrown into jail. Maybe the question isn't whether carbohydrates are addictive, but whether they are the most addictive substance of all.
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How You Get Hooked (Over Time)
1. When you take in carbs, like Gatorade or whole-wheat bread, you secrete the hormone insulin. Even thinking about carbs causes this to happen.
2. Refined carbs spike blood sugar, and this is a big problem. The first result is that your body immediately stops burning its existing fat stores.
3. Too much blood sugar is a dangerous situation, and in response, insulin, a hormone, rips it from your blood and tells the body to store the energy as fat (in men this first happens around the waist).
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